An article Sunday about Rep. Michael Forbes (D-N.Y.) misidentified the party affiliation of New York state assemblywoman Pat Acampora. She is a Republican. (Published 12/10/1999)

Just days before New York Rep. Michael P. Forbes switched from being a Republican to being a Democrat last summer, Richard and Rochelle Weissbard sent him a contribution. The Stony Brook couple is still fuming.

"He's a political opportunist," Rochelle Weissbard said, as she made her way down the aisle of a gourmet grocery store. "He was dishonest with the people. He just made a switch for his own political expediency, not for the folks at home."

With the district's voter registration tilted nearly 2 to 1 in favor of Republicans, constituents such as the Weissbards may help determine whether Forbes--the first congressional Republican to change parties since the 1970s--will retain his seat next year. This sliver of eastern Long Island has become ground zero in the battle for control of the House, with both parties viewing the race here as one of their top targets.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said the contest is not only critical for the Democrats' bid to retake the majority that they lack by five votes, but it could also affect their ability to recruit future party switchers.

"I do think if we win, other Republicans might be interested in doing this," Gephardt said last week. "Moderate Republicans have to begin asking the same things Mike did. Am I in the right party? Can I do the things my constituents want in a party dominated by the right wing?"

Before Democrats can begin winning over more converts, however, they need to protect the one they already have. Facing leery Democrats and disaffected Republicans, Forbes is trying to placate local party operatives as well as rank-and-file voters at the same time.

"As time has gone on here, I've found that some of the people who have been angry toward me have calmed down and reached out to me," Forbes said last week, adding that many of his constituents have supported his decision.

In the months since he became a Democrat, Forbes has been both pummeled and praised. Forbes explained his switch by saying that the House GOP leadership had moved too far to the right, opposing measures such as managed care and campaign finance reform.

House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said last week that he would encourage other GOP members who are like Forbes to defect: "Our barrel's not spoiled, because the rotten apple's gone."

Upset over his opposition to abortion and acceptance of tobacco industry contributions, local Democrats including Tony Bullock, chief of staff of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), and former New York representative Bella Abzug's daughter Liz are considering a primary challenge.

Calling the switch "one of the grossest political miscalculations of the twentieth century," Bullock said that Forbes has alienated activists in both parties. "He pulled the pin but he forgot to throw the grenade," said Bullock, East Hampton's former town supervisor. "He's in pieces politically."

But other Democrats have embraced Forbes, arguing that a protracted primary fight would only hurt the party in the long run. Suffolk County legislator George Guldi, who grew up with Forbes and ran unsuccessfully against him for homeroom representative during their senior year in high school, likes to joke: "I got over not liking Mike Forbes long before anybody else knew him."

Comparing the switch to Mets fans welcoming a former Yankees pitcher to the team, Guldi said Democrats would warm to Forbes over time. "It takes them a while to remember to cheer for you instead of boo," he said. "The fact is he has to show his face and do his work."

Forbes has scheduled a heavy load of constituent meetings in the coming weeks. Forbes--who has not formally announced whether he will seek reelection--has also courted organized labor.

Long Island Federation of Labor President Jack Caffey said his 140,000-member union would operate phone banks, distribute literature and donate money on behalf of Forbes, who has backed such labor priorities as raising the minimum wage. "He's stood by us and we'll stand by him," Caffey said.

The House Democratic leadership is staunchly behind Forbes. Gephardt has made what his aides describe as "countless" calls to local Democrats on his behalf and plans to make a personal pitch to them in the near future; and he even enlisted his own donors for an $80,000 Upper East Side fund-raiser for Forbes last month.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) is set to come to the district this week to appear at another fund-raiser, and New York liberal Reps. Charles B. Rangel and Nita M. Lowey have urged their supporters to welcome Forbes into the fold.

Gephardt, who has met with the New York congressional delegation three times to urge support for Forbes, said he and others are working to "rebuild a new financial infrastructure" for the congressman. Gephardt has preserved Forbes's House perks, including his seat on the Appropriations Committee and the Helsinki commission.

Forbes said he is "honored by the support" he has received from the Democratic establishment, boasting that Democrats wouldn't sign off on the budget deal without the inclusion of one of his pet projects--$1.25 million to acquire property for a wildlife refuge in Brookhaven, N.Y. However, that funding has become a subject of controversy--one of Forbes's potential Republican rivals, Brookhaven Supervisor Felix J. Grucci Jr., noted that GOP House leaders inserted the money at his request.

Such federal largess may help impress independent voters such as Jack Busa, a computer consultant from Port Jefferson Station. "Now, the question is--by switching parties, is he going to have more leverage or less leverage," said Busa, who supports the Conservative Party.

Being able to brag about delivering for the district is one of incumbency's benefits, and state Assemblywoman Pat Acampora (D) said it is one of the reasons she is leaning against challenging Forbes. Noting that her senior citizen husband has been deluged with mail highlighting Forbes's position on Social Security, she said, "It's not just that easy to say, 'Ugh, he switched. Let's go out and get him.' "

But Forbes may have lost certain advantages by switching, such as getting his name on the Conservative, Liberal and Right-to-Life lines on the New York ballot next fall. And he continues to provide fodder for critics, voting in a GOP primary this fall and publicly telling his colleagues, "We should be ashamed" of the process of producing the final budget bill shortly before voting for it.

Early next year, Long Island Republicans will select one candidate to face Forbes--Suffolk County Clerk Ed Romaine is hoping to run, along with Grucci--and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) said GOP polls show that any of the party's potential candidates can defeat Forbes.

"He's very vulnerable," Davis said, noting that House GOP leaders are still bitter with Forbes for using campaign money they helped him raise before the switch. "We're going to beat him."